I’m going to begin tonight’s recap with a confession: I friggin’ love the Olympics. There are few things I care about less than professional sports, yet for two weeks every two years, I binge on coverage of the games to the point that I see Bob Costas’ waxy visage when I close my eyes at night. What I enjoy—deeply— is the mass spectacle and unbridled sentimentality of the Olympics, and the increasingly rare opportunity to take part in the type of huge, collective cultural experience that the games provide.
I love the Olympics for the very same reason I got up last year 5 a.m. to watch the Royal Wedding, and why every year I still watch all 72 hours of the Oscars, even though I know I will hate myself for doing so. In a cultural landscape that’s increasingly compartmentalized, and where it’s easier than ever to stay safely within the confines of one’s niche taste, it can be especially exhilarating to watch something you know everyone else is watching. too. And as much as everyone grumbles about the relentless focus on just a handful of sports—gymnastics, swimming, track and field—I also think it’s great that non-professional athletes like Gabby Douglas and Missy Franklin get more attention at the Olympics than gazillionaires like LeBron James or Roger Federer. It’s like for two weeks American taste does a complete 180, and it’s a change I rather like.
And while there’s plenty to complain about when it comes to NBC’s coverage, I can’t fault the network for their decision to tape-delay the game’s headline events. Yes, it’s annoying to have to avert my eyes every time I go online so as not to accidentally find out results from competitions already completed in London, but it’s also weirdly fun to be a temporary Luddite and to try to revert to a pre-internet style of Olympics-watching. (However, as I discovered tonight when I accidentally happened across the results of the women’s all-around competition just minutes before I settled in to watch tonight’s broadcast, it’s almost impossible to do this. Damn you, Tim Berners-Lee!) If the networks played these events live during the day, when most of us are at work, wouldn’t that be at least as irritating as having to watch their taped, edited version at night? I can’t blame NBC for the unfortunate fact that London is an awkward five hours ahead of the East Coast.
I can, however, blame them for their awful and at times inexplicable primetime coverage. As someone who, to some extent tunes into the Olympics for the very reasons that so many people get frustrated with them—the myopic focus on swimming and gymnastics, the manipulative personal narratives, and even the skewed American perspective—I’ve still been deeply frustrated by NBC’s programming this year. The athlete profiles have felt both perfunctory and superfluous, so brief, uninformative, and generically “inspirational” that they might as well just play the same segment over and over again. NBC’s fixation with crafting a “narrative” is so out of control, I actually think it’s started to mess with the athletes. Look at the performance of male gymnast John Orozco, who, we were told approximately 1000 times over black-and-white footage of the subway, is from the Bronx. There was so much pressure on that poor kid to save his parents from their hard-scrabble existence, it’s no wonder he choked in such a heartbreaking fashion. (Similarly, there’s an almost ghoulish rush from the NBC commentators to mention any athlete who’s recently lost a parent, as we saw in tonight’s women’s eight final.)
Tonight the narrative-building is most evident in the swimming competition, where seemingly every event is framed in sweeping historical terms. (I think between them, Costas, Dan Hicks, and Rowdy Gaines drop the “h” word at least two dozen times.) The first big final of the night is the women’s 200-meter breaststroke, where defending Olympic champion and world-record holder Rebecca Soni isn’t just trying to win, she’s also trying to become the first individual gold medalist from Beijing to triumph again in London. Despite the many, many times as Costas, et. al., remind us of this, it still feels like they're trying to turn an interesting bit of trivia into something historic.
The broadcast also includes two lame swimmer profiles that vividly illustrate NBC’s ham-fisted yet ineffective story editing. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it piece about sprinter Anthony Ervin, who won the gold in Sydney in the 50-meter freestyle, abruptly retired from the sport for eight years, then staged a comeback. Also, he’s got some crazy tattoos and emo glasses. Color me interested. But unfortunately the profile is basically a 45-second distraction that sheds no light on why Ervin quit swimming in the first place. There are mentions of his personal problems, but no specifics. Was it drugs? Depression? Kleptomania? Sex addiction? Who the hell knows. NBC is in such a mad rush to get to the inspirational conclusion, they never adequately establish the supposed conflict. Likewise, the profile of Rebecca Soni takes what is actually an interesting and potentially illuminating subject—her unusual breaststroke technique—and immediately turns it into a lame, obvious metaphor for her individuality. And to think, we might have actually learned something.
Worst of all is the supposed “rivalry” we keep hearing about between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Tonight these two compete against each other for the last time ever—maybe!—in the final of the 200 IM. But first Lochte has to compete in the 200-meter backstroke final, which he won in Beijing. He’s ahead for the first 150, but chokes on the final 50 and comes in third, losing to fellow American and Will Forte-lookalike Tyler Clary (Soon to be seen in the major motion picture Tyler Clary Presents Tyler Clary’s Big Happy 200-Meter Backstroke Final). I came into these Olympics thinking Lochte might be a good antidote to Phelps overexposure, but after his ungracious victory in the 400 IM on Saturday, I took an instant dislike to Lochte, which was compounded when I watched this, this, and this. Basically, he is the unholy spawn of Jeff Spicoli, Hansel from Zoolander, and Matthew McConaughey. Rather than criticizing his underperformance, shouldn’t we be celebrating just how far he’s made it despite being clinically brain dead? All kidding aside, I am enjoying the way that reality keeps thwarting the narrative NBC keeps shoving down our throats. Lochte has done just fine, and god knows there are plenty of girls out there swooning over his totally asinine diamond grill (“It’s like a retainer, just like a really expensive, shiny retainer”) but he’s obviously not having the Olympics they hoped he would, nor is he regaling everyone with his effervescent personality.
But back to the 200 IM. NBC heaps all kind of historical significance onto the race: This could be Phelps’ first individual gold of the London games, it’s (probably) his last race against Lochte, and it’s a chance for Phelps to “threepeat” in the event. Given all the records apparently being set, you’d think Phelps would look more excited when he soundly defeats archrival Lochte.
The real marquee event of the evening is the women’s all-around gymnastics final, an event that, with all the rhinestones , heavy makeup, and the shimmying about to bad pop music, feels like a really sadistic beauty pageant. Gymnastics is easily the most sadistic sport in the summer games, and this its most brutal event, essentially a televised death match to determine the best female gymnast in the world. The competition begins with a pointless and overwrought montage, narrated by 2008 all-around champ Nastia Liukin, who warns Douglas and Raisman about the “two Russian stars that could take it all away from you.” Like the profiles of Ervin and Soni, the video serves no apparent purpose; it’s about as useful and as appealing as a trailer for a movie you’re already watching.
I know from the beginning that the truly miniature Gabby Douglas is the winner, but NBC makes it abundantly obvious to anyone with a brain it’s a four-way race between her, Viktoria Komova, Aliya Mustafina, and Aly Raisman. (They throw Deng Linlin into the mix every now and then just to throw us off the scent, but they’re not fooling anyone.) Douglas takes the lead in the very first rotation, and proceeds to deliver near-perfect routines on each apparatus. It’s amazing to watch this tiny little person compete with such resolve and intensity, but Douglas’ composure, though admirable, also makes her victory seem inevitable. There’s not a terrible amount of suspense, except when Mustafina and Raisman tie for third, but there is a fair amount of drama, mostly thanks to the tempestuous Russians.
Thank god for them, with their brooding, fiery personalities, tendency to break down into sobbing fits, and apparent willingness to embody a pernicious cultural stereotype. Last night, Stephen Colbert joked that gymnastics is all about “making little foreign girls cry.” He was joking (duh), but I tend to think he’s right, at least in terms of how the media covers the sport—by gleefully scrutinizing very young women. At the same time, I also find myself getting very annoyed by the patronizing way the commentators talk about these athletes, especially Gabby Douglas. Listening to Costas wax rhapsodic about her beaming smile for the billionth time, I sanp: Yes, she’s intensely adorable, but she’s also a fucking bad ass. Could you stop talking about her like she’s a puppy? Then there’s the insistence on instantly historicizing Douglas’ victory. As the broadcast winds down, Costas notes that she’s the first African-American woman to win the all-around title and predicts her victory will inspire other young African-Americans to pursue gymnastics. It’s all very true, of course, but it also feels like another rush to turn an individual triumph into a sweeping historical one. Just let the girl enjoy her gold medal, Bob. The prognostication can wait until tomorrow. (Speaking of which: During an ad break, there's a preview for a special report about the 1996 women's gymnastics team which will air during Friday's primetime broadcast. NBC would rather air clips of old Olympic games rather than the current ones, that's how obsessed they are with "history-making moments.")
The night isn’t only about gymnastics and swimming, though it feels that way. The program begins with the final of the women’s eight. Rowing is a great sport for last-minute comebacks, and for a second there it looks like the Canadian crew might catch up on the Americans, but nope. It’s anticlimactic, but the whole scene is enjoyable to watch, especially the spectators peddling along to keep up with the race on their bikes. It also strikes me that rowing is one of the most deceptive sports there is: It looks so smooth and synchronized, but it’s sheer hell when you’re pulling on those oars. In the first hour, there’s also a seemingly interminable men’s volleyball match between Brazil and the United States, which despite my professional obligation, I simply can’t bring myself to care about, except to say that the American team consists entirely of tall, chiseled men and could easily be confused for a Romney family reunion. Also, the US wins. That automatically makes it interesting, right?
- On a personal note, I was excited to write about tonight since I was both a swimmer (500 free and 200 IM, bitches) and rower (starboard, seven-seat) in my youth. Look for me in Rio, where I will be providing color commentary in both sports.
- One thing I will give NBC credit for is how quickly they’ve figured out that Ryan Seacrest has no business being at the Olympic games. He was nowhere to be found in tonight’s broadcast, and for that I am grateful.
- I only wish McKayla Maroney, a.k.a. the Regina George of gymnastics, were in the all-around finals, because homegirl does not mess around.
- One thing I’m slightly disappointed in this year is the lack of those little travelogue segments NBC usually incorporates into its Olympics coverage in order to familiarize Americans with various customs of the host country. I suppose the English aren’t exactly that exotic, but still, it’s surprising—NBC constantly seems to underestimate the intelligence of its viewers. I’m shocked we haven’t gotten segments where Ryan Seacrest samples bangers and mash and Imperial pints of warm beer.
- It’s amazing how quickly the eye adjusts to the tiny physical scale of women’s gymnastics. Watching Viktoria Komova spin around on the uneven bars, I think, “Boy, she has long legs.” Then I remember she is 4’ 11.
- I wonder how former Olympians—like Mary Lou Retton, who’s in the audience at the women’s gymnastics final—go about getting tickets. Once you’re on a Wheaties box, do you just get tickets for life?
- Here’s a fun game. Try and match the ridiculous commentary to the person who said it: A) “I know I sound like I am obnoxiously critical.” B) “We’ve had a lot of crying in women’s gymnastics and she’s been a part of that.” C) “She’s far and away the best bar-worker.”
- I think maybe Aliya Mustafina fell off the beam because she was distracted by the Pink Floyd that was playing for someone else’s floor routine.
- Tyler Clary is the only athlete I've heard say anything interesting about winning gold: “There’s no way to sum it up in short enough words that broadcasters would be okay with.”
- Dan Hicks tells us Missy Franklin got invited to a Justin Bieber concert after winning a gold medal. “That’s pretty good stuff for a 17-year-old,” he says. YEAH, SO IS WINNING A GOLD MEDAL.
- I love the old-school style of Hungarian swimmer László Cseh, who wears simple Swedish goggles and no cap.
- The Phelps women really like a statement necklace, don’t they?
- I miss the finite simplicity of the old gymnastics scoring system, where a 10 was the best and that’s all there was to it.
- Ranomi Kromowidjojo wins the 50 free — and the title of “most entertaining foreign name of the night.”
- Phelps is more excited about a tweet from Lil Wayne than a phone call from the president.
- Last night, my colleague Kevin McFarland compared the Olympics to a reality show, and there are two devices NBC keeps using that seem borrowed from the genre. First, there are "flashbacks" to things that happened in the very recent past, like Missy Franklin's victory in the 100 back. Then there's the irritating tendency to fill air time by constantly teasing what's coming up next and endlessly recapping what we've already seen. It's like watching The Bachelor.